Olympic Hockey 2014: Strengths and Weaknesses of Every Team
The stage is set for the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and who will skate away with the gold medal is anyone’s guess.
On the biggest stage the world could offer, representatives of 12 nations will be competing for honor, national pride and four years of glory, as the competition runs from Feb. 12–23. With rosters featuring players ranging from national development program teams to those that face off in the National Hockey League on a nightly basis, the level of competition will certainly be comprised of the best of the best.
Powerhouses and underdogs will collide, utilizing fortitude to win while also exploiting flaws in opponents to seek a competitive edge.
Who will be the strongest? Who will be the weakest? Who will medal? Who will bow out?
Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team set to compete for gold.
Ryan Boulding is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via interview.
The Austrians have qualified for the Winter Olympics for the first time since a 12th-place finish at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. On the outside and looking in for the last two tournaments, the national team finally has a chance at playing against the best the world has to offer. Having knocked out Germany in the process, eyes will be on Austria to see what the nation has to offer.
Austria will have to lean heavily on its more experienced players, namely those with NHL experience, if it stands any chance against some of the more dominant teams in the Games. Thomas Vanek is the most notable of those, having posted eight straight seasons of 20 or more goals. Vanek will be called upon to shoulder the workload on offense with the hopes that he is able to shake off strong defense from his opponents.
Joining Vanek is fellow New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner. Despite a less consistent showing in the NHL, Grabner knows how to find the back of the net and will help his teammates improve while also adding some depth to the roster. Michael Raffl and Thomas Pock round out the list of guys with NHL experience, current or otherwise.
The obvious obstacle in the path to a good seed in the qualification round is Canada. Unless there is an epic meltdown, the Canadians will be the toughest team in Group B. That isn't to say that Finland and Norway won't be stiff competition for the Austrians—they will.
Still, Austria could squeak out a win over the Norwegians if the on-ice product comes together the right way. Finland will be tougher but is also beatable. If Austria manages to steal two games, that will put it in a favorable spot come the qualification round, which is largely the first game that truly matters.
Perhaps the only team with more pressure than Canada to succeed in the men’s hockey tournament is Russia, the host nation. Every loss on the world stage is a slight to the country that boasts hockey as the national pastime. Having taken home the gold medal in the last Olympics—as the host—Canada is of course looking to establish dominance with a repeat.
The Canadian team has been carefully crafted from a pool of acceptable talent with a specific focus in mind. Names like Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau and Matt Duchene comprise possibly the strongest unit in the tournament.
The buck doesn’t stop at scoring goals, either. According to comments made to The Canadian Press (via CBC.com), a well-rounded game is just the kind of thing that Hockey Canada general manager Steve Yzerman is looking for.
"I really like our group up front," he said. "We have a whole bunch of guys that can skate, move the puck, are really dangerous offensively but understand how the game's supposed to be played with and without the puck.”
The way the forwards will be expected to play, the defensive unit will have all the help it can handle and then some. Comprised of the best that Canada has to offer, the blue line will be about as porous as a rock and just as solid as well.
Add to that the ability to pitch in offensively, and Hockey Canada becomes quite the foe for all.
Despite taking home a gold medal on the strength of stellar goalkeeping in the final of the 2010 Games, Roberto Luongo may see his starting role dissipate due to injuries and substandard play lowering his stock. Carey Price hasn’t been much better, as his Montreal Canadiens have been struggling just as much.
Keep an eye on this as the biggest chink in Canada’s shiny armor.
Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene offers up a different perspective.
“I don’t see many weaknesses,” said Duchene. “The only weakness I can see is that we don’t play on big ice year round, and it might be a bit of an adjustment, but we have a hell of a team. It’s kind of gold or bust, I guess.”
Comprised of wily veterans and young national leaguers, the Czech Republic features one of the most widely varied rosters in the Games. Considered a nation in decline when it comes to hockey development, according to many, including Tom Thompson of The Hockey News, the Czechs have the mounting pressure of remaining relevant in the hockey world to compete with as well.
There is no dearth of veteran leadership on the Czech roster. Battle-hardened players including the 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 40-year-old former NHLer Peter Nedved will have plenty to pass along to the lesser-traveled guys on the squad. Combined with talent like Tomas Plekanec, Ales Hemsky, Patrik Elias and David Krejci, their wisdom could prove valuable enough to surprise quite a few teams.
When asked his thoughts on the team, Czech snub and Avalanche defenseman Jan Hejda agreed.
"Overall forwards," he said. "Offensive power is great."
The presumed starter would be Ondrej Pavelec, the lone goalie playing in the NHL at this time. Except Pavelec isn't having the kind of season that would put him far ahead of the competition in net. Having gone 6-5 in the month of January, Pavelec finished the Olympic warm-up with a 2.90 goals-against average and a .894 save percentage.
That kind of performance won't cut it with two other keepers having better seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, leaving a large question mark over the crease.
This one is on the organization and not the players. More than a few important names were left off the list when the roster was announced, including NHL forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata, and defensemen Roman Polak and Jan Hejda.
With the decision to add national team members in place of NHL players, there's no telling how the team will hold up when the competition starts.
Finland had a fantastic run in the 2010 Games that culminated in a bronze medal with a victory over Slovakia. Utilizing a mix of veteran experience, superb goaltending and offensive punch, the national team is poised to make another splash at the 2014 Olympics.
Kari Lehtonen. Antti Niemi. Tuukka Rask. Any one of those players could start in net and carry Finland through to the promised land. Despite an up-and-down January, Rask has been fantastic for the Boston Bruins, one of the most dominant teams in the Eastern Conference, and is poised to own the majority of starts in Sochi.
Niemi has gone 7-3 for the San Jose Sharks to start 2014 and is more than capable of coming in for a game or two and keeping the score close. Should Rask falter, the 30-year-old Stanley Cup champ has a proven track record of solid play.
Aside from three outstanding netminders, the Finnish team has just a forward or two that has spent time burning holes in the scoresheet. Valtteri Filppula, Jussi and Olli Jokinen and Teemu Selanne are more than proven snipers and will make for quite a challenge to opposing defenses.
Add young guns Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund to the mix, and Finland is stacked up front.
The biggest area for exploit when playing the Finns is easily the defensive unit. Aside from Olli Maata and Kimmo Timmonen, the Finns have a mediocre defense at best. While former NHLer Ossi Vaananen makes half of a so-so second pairing, the remaining names leave something to be desired.
Yes, the goaltending is solid, but a keeper is only as good as his support, and Finland will have to compensate to make up for the lack of a strong blue line.
The Latvian national team has perhaps the biggest hill to climb in the 2014 Winter Olympics. It didn't win a single game during the Vancouver Games and will have to prove itself against the big dogs again this year. Boasting a blue line bolstered with the experience of former Stanley Cup champion Sandis Ozolinsh, the Latvians look to continue developing on the world stage.
The element of surprise is the biggest thing that the Latvians have going entering Russia. Nobody expects them to put up much of a fight, and that makes Latvia dangerous. Lessened expectations frees the team up to focus on doing what it does best, and that could bring wins with it. More than a few nations managed a big upset against a powerhouse in 2010, and Latvia aims to do just that, using the tournament to gauge progress on a national level.
Team Latvia is being helmed by Ted Nolan, the man currently tasked with salvaging the Buffalo Sabres' season. Nolan has been behind the Latvian bench for a few years now and certainly has a feel for the direction his club is headed. No stranger to adversity, Nolan will have his work cut out for him but can use his years of professional hockey experience to sculpt a competitive group.
The Latvians managed just six goals through five games in the last Olympics. The pace was only slightly better in the World Championships, where the men averaged two goals a game. They won just two out of seven contests in that time. Unless Latvia figures out a way to start outscoring opponents, which includes finding a way beat NHL-caliber netminders, there won't be any shot at a medal.
The clubs to beat this year, as it has been for a while now, are essentially NHL dream teams, amalgamated with as much talent from the best league in the world as possible. Latvia has a few NHL dropouts and a smattering of current KHL players in the mix, along with current NHLer Zemgus Girgensons, from the Buffalo Sabres. The gaps in the level of talent will work against Latvia throughout the Games.
Norway is a middle-of-the-pack club that had quite the unlucky grouping in the last tournament. This time around, the division is more suited to Norway’s abilities—with the exception of Canada—and the less hockey-dominant Scandinavian nation is looking to improve on a qualification-round knockout in 2010.
The biggest name on the Norway roster, Mats Zuccarello is tasked with leading the offensive charge for Norway. Having put six goals and five assists on the scoresheet in 15 games in January for the New York Rangers, Zuccarello will be important to Norway’s success.
With loads of international hockey experience, Zuccarello is no stranger to the tough task of tournaments like this. His experience will be valuable to his national team.
Despite the presence of two guys—Jonas Holos and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen—with NHL experience, the Norwegian defense is a weak link for the club. There will be a lot of firepower coming from teams like Canada and Finland, and the ability to stop the onslaught will be the difference between going deeper in the tournament and and struggling to get out of the first round.
Lars Haugen appears to the be starter for the Norwegians, given he has the majority of professional experience. Haugen has struggled this season in the KHL, despite playing for the league-leading Dinamo Minsk, and will have to play much better if his team is to compete on the world stage.
Haugen has support in up-and-comers Lars Volden and Steffen Soberg, and either one could step in as an unknown and steal a game.
The Russians looked to be one of the teams to beat in the 2010 Games. Poised for a run at gold, the club stumbled early with an overtime loss to Slovakia. This resulted in a lopsided 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals, which sent the Russians reeling. Hosting the 2014 Games, the Russian national team will look to feed off of the home-ice advantage as it seeks redemption on the path to the gold medal.
A common theme for many teams this season, goaltending will serve as the backbone for the Russians. With both Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky playing better-than-stellar hockey since the start of the year, either could step into the crease and carry Russia through the tournament.
Varlamov went 10-1-1 in January, boasting a mediocre 2.92 goals-against average but a decent .917 save percentage while boosting his Colorado Avalanche up the standings. His retooled game and athletic ability give him a large upside. Bobrovsky has gone 8-2 to start the year and also has managed a 2.25 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage with the Columbus Blue Jackets to boot.
Offense is always one of the strengths of the Russians. For years the nation dominated world play, very nearly setting the standard at the international level. Names like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Valeri Nichushkin, Nikolai Kulemin and Alex Ovechkin will fill the top lines with offensive threats and more than a few goals.
"Those guys, they can score the goals," said Varlamov. "We have pretty skilled players on the team."
The Russians will use playing on home soil to their advantage, playing in front of friends, family and more. Despite this, the home-ice advantage will also work against them. The pressure to win will be enormous, on scale with that of Canada and perhaps the United States. Russia will not want to disappoint in Sochi, and there will be a lot of eyes and media looking to investigate any mishaps or poor decisions.
Team Russia will have to block all of this out and focus on the good if there is any chance to medal.
The Russians are teeming with superstars, but the spaces in between them start to stretch thin on the roster. As such, depth appears to be an area of concern. If the top players in the lineup are shut down by solid defensive game plans from the other Olympic hopefuls, is there enough talent to step up and carry the team into the championship game?
That's the question everyone will be asking from start to finish.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, the Slovakian national team made it all the way to the bronze-medal game only to fall to Finland. That doesn’t mean the Games weren’t successful for the club. In fact, upset victories over Russia in the prelims and Sweden in the quarterfinals proved that Slovakia can compete with the best, and you can bet the Slovaks are looking to do it again in Sochi.
Slovakia has more talent in the NHL than many might realize. With goaltender Jaroslav Halak having a solid season with the St. Louis Blues, the crease is on lockdown for the Slovaks. Halak went 6-2 in January with a .938 save percentage and a 1.92 goals-against average though nine contests.
Montreal Canadiens backup Peter Budaj will serve as support for Halak, offering the chance to steal a win when giving Halak a game off if needed.
Slovakia boasts a handful of talented forwards, including Marian Hossa, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Kopecky, Michal Handzus and Marian Gaborik (if healthy). With support from guys like Zdeno Chara, Andrej Meszaros and Andrej Sekera, there will be no lack of points put on the board.
The way the roster is constructed for Slovakia, depth will play a major factor in determining the outcome of the games. While there certainly is some skill and firepower in place, the gaps in between the superstars and average NHLers are ripe for being picked apart, especially in the early rounds.
Placed in the same group as Team USA and Team Russia, Slovakia will have to overcome its own deficiencies to earn a favorable seed. From there, the national team must rely on clutch play from the better players to steal games in the rounds that matter.
Slovenia joins Latvia and Austria as an underdog in the 2014 Winter Olympics. That said, the nation gets a chance to see how it stacks up against the best the world has to offer while providing a glimpse at the development of the country’s game as well.
Element of Surprise
Slovenia brings an element of surprise with it into Sochi, as it has never participated in the Games before. Despite a last-place finish in the 2013 World Championships, Slovenia has earned a berth to play in Russia and will use its relatively unnoticed lineup and game system to match up with the big dogs.
Chance to learn
Slovenia will gain invaluable experience from the Games and can use that as a gauge and a guide when it comes to national development. The chance to shoot on guys like Ryan Miller and Semyon Varlamov and to match up against the likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Alexander Ovechkin will prove to be favorable in the long run.
Slovenia will certainly learn a lot during the tournament, but it also faces perhaps the heaviest competitive group of all. Tasked with facing Slovakia, Russia and Team USA, the first-year Olympic squad will have an uphill battle throughout the Games.
Slovenia will have to play against super squads consisting almost entirely of players from the NHL, the top tier of hockey. It must steal points from one of the more reputable clubs if it has any chance of making a dent in the standings and earning a favorable matchup in the qualification round.
Just like in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Team Sweden is poised for big things. Always a contender, the Swedish team took gold at the far-inferior World Championships last summer and only improved the roster with the addition of more NHL talent.
There’s no shortage of firepower for Sweden entering the Games. Five players in the lineup (Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Steen, Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Gabriel Landeskog) have 40 or more points in the NHL, and that will prove tough to shutdown.
The full-frontal assault spans multiple lines, with Sweden looking to take the lead early while shutting things down in its own blue paint. If the club can get a couple of quick ones on the board, there’s no telling how many teams it can knock off on the way to the medal round.
Henrik Lundqvist returns to the world tournament hot as can be. He went 8-3-1 in January and is looking to pick up where he left off in 2010. Lundqvist had two shutouts in his first two contests in Vancouver and is capable of stealing games for the Swedes when called upon.
Jonas Enroth will be Hank’s backup in the games and is more than capable should the need arise.
"I think, for a tournament like this, I think goalie's going to be huge. You need a red-hot goalie," said Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog of his national team. "We've got Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best players in the league."
The Swedes were primed for quite the run in 2010 before a surprise knockout from Slovakia sent them home early. Despite taking the gold last summer in the World Championships, the stigma of an early collapse will follow Team Sweden into Russia. The national team has to compete against its own ghosts if it has any hope of a medal.
Twelve players have been added since the summer event, drastically changing the makeup of the lineup for the bigger Olympic challenge. With NHL guys pouring in from an assortment of different clubs with varying game systems, the challenge will be to adapt to the strategy employed by the coaching staff in a short amount of time, honing an acceptable game in the preliminary rounds for a push through to the end.
The Swiss team is one of the clubs to really keep an eye on during the Games in Sochi. A surprise to everyone last summer, Switzerland stormed the World Championships, winning every game save for the championship match. Knocking the Czech Republic and the United States out of the tournament on the way to a silver medal, the Swiss are looking to do the same in Russia.
A make-or-break component for each and every squad playing in the 2014 Olympic Games, goaltending is at the core of what will make the Swiss so successful. Jonas Hiller is the key piece of the puzzle for Switzerland. Playing on the best team in the NHL, Hiller has been a force to be reckoned with in North America. The 31-year-old brick wall went 6-3 in January and will bring that edge with him to Sochi.
Add rookie NHL keeper Reto Berra to the mix, and the goaltending situation could be one of the best in the Games. Berra went 4-0 in the 2013 World Championships, allowing just four goals in that span. Despite a rough introduction to the world of the NHL, the 27-year-old Berra has plenty to offer his country in support of Hiller.
There have been relatively few changes to the Swiss lineup since the success of the 2013 World Championships, meaning the core of the group is intact and ready to continue moving ahead. Often overlooked, the Swiss will command the attention of the so-called powerhouse clubs when the puck drops.
With every club gearing up with the best goalies they can find, the ability to score goals is going to be the second-most important trait of any team looking to medal this time around. For Switzerland, the forward lineup is littered with Swiss leaguers. While other clubs are loading up with all of the NHL talent they can hold, the Swiss are relying on the ability to step up and adapt.
Until they prove otherwise, the Swiss forwards will be the weakest link on the team.
Team USA was perfect in the 2010 Games, defeating all comers all the way up until overtime in the gold-medal match. Having lost on a soft goal after playing as the best team in the tournament, the silver medal tasted more like failure than success. The United States will be playing for redemption in Sochi, looking to take home gold for the first time since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Just like for Canada, the United States is composed of a veritable dream team of NHL players. Shedding their team names and systems to unite for their country, the Americans will need to overcome strong goaltending—especially from Russia—early and consistently if they stand any chance at a medal.
Guys like Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Kane, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny will certainly help in that regard. The game plan will require the forwards to score early and score often while also locking down the defensive end of things.
The blueliners for the United States will need to be as strong on the ice as they look on paper if the U.S. is to go anywhere. There are a number of guys that will log long minutes, including Ryan Suter—who should be accustomed to this by now—in hopes of keeping the puck at the other end of the ice.
Depending on the day, the goalie situation for the Americans can be considered a strength or a weakness. Boasting Ryan Miller, Jonathon Quick and Jimmy Howard, one would think that the U.S. is stacked in the crease.
The performance in net remains to be seen, though, as both Quick and Howard have dealt with injury this season, and Miller has been tasked with backstopping arguably the worst team in the NHL. Adversity could work to the advantage of those in net, serving to inspire and motivate. But it could also have the opposite effect, breaking them down early.
One look at the fantastic opus drafted by ESPN’s Scott Burnside and anyone can tell that there will be no lack of drama surrounding Team USA this month. An report on the selection process of USA Hockey, the work drew immediate reaction from players, media members and the USA Hockey executives themselves following its release.
With the skill of players in question, the retelling of how dreams played a part in decisions and a few unflattering remarks recounted, Team USA was already apologizing well before the taking the ice. The media circus will continue in Russia and could prove a hefty distraction.